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Some of the Major Influences on Andrew Taylor Still

Still was influenced by the intellectual and philosophical movements making their way across America during his life time such as transcendentalism, phrenology, natural hygiene, homoeopathy, magnetic healing, spiritualism and mesmerism and also by Hippocrates’s doctrine where all illness was seen as the result of an imbalance in the body of four humours. The therapeutic approach was based on “the healing power of nature” (“vis medicatrix naturae”), the body containing within itself the power to rebalance the four humours and heal itself. He studied the English philosopher Herbert Spencer, who developed a theory of evolution before Darwin and wrote about a wide range of subjects, including ethics, religion, anthropology, economics, political theory, philosophy, biology, sociology, and psychology. In later years Still was a Freemason.

Still, was fascinated with machines, and was an amateur inventor. He assembled and operated a steam-powered saw mill when he helped build Baker University. He invented a wheat harvesting machine, but his idea was stolen by a visiting sales representative, who put it into production. In 1871 he invented and marketed a centrifugal butter churn. Some of his inventions were related to the practice of osteopathy, such as the patient brace, a simple device designed to keep patients from falling off the narrow treatment table during vigorous manipulations. In 1910 he patented a smokeless coal furnace, though he had difficulty producing a full-sized working model. Heartbroken by Mary Elvira’s death in May 1910 he did not pursue the matter further. He was fascinated by human mechanics and had an excellent knowledge of anatomy. Still said: “An osteopath is only a human engineer, who should understand all the laws governing his engine and thereby master disease.” Still, as a boy, scrutinised the muscles, nerves and bones of the animals he hunted. Later, as a young doctor he dug up Indian graves to study the skeletons. For years he carried one or two bones in each of his pockets and often a whole sackful over his shoulder. He wondered about their mechanics and how they influenced health and disease. He saw that the nerves that control the body branched off from the spinal column through small holes between the vertebrae. He became convinced the minor dislocations or subluxations, which he called “osteopathic lesions” could cause disease. He said: “all diseases are mere effects, the cause being a partial or complete failure of the nerves to properly conduct the fluids of life”.

Still was an intuitive thinker who spoke in florid allegories, was dogmatic, evangelical, kind, humorous and generous. He was venerated by his early followers as an infallible font of truth. He continued to dress as a ‘tramp doctor’, even as principal of the ASO. Many of his ideas were years ahead of their time. Still never believed that drugs apart from anaesthetics and antiseptics had any value. At the time that Still learned medicine form his father, Louis Pasteur had yet to discover, in 1861, that micro-organisms cause infectious diseases, and it wasn’t until 1865 that Joseph Lister invented anti-sepsis. Common medical treatments at that time included vomiting, purging, blood-letting and heroic doses of opium, morphine, arsenic, and calomel (a mercury based drug which rotted the teeth, gums, and cheeks of the patient), and often did more harm than good and didn’t prevent three of his children dying from meningitis. He correctly recognised that the muscular and skeletal systems are important to the body’s health. His belief in the self-healing powers of the body is similar to modern theories. His idea of the “osteopathic lesion” (now called “somatic dysfunction”) has been supported by research by Korr and Denslow on how a facilitated segment can act as a neurological lens contributing to disease. Osteopaths today do not believe that “somatic dysfunction” can be the sole cause of disease, but that it can be a contributing factor, and that treatment of “somatic dysfunction” can be an adjunct to conventional medical treatment to hasten recovery.

January 31st 2019


Philip Bayliss, Registered Osteopath, 43 Thames Street, St Albans, Christchurch, NZ. ☎️03 356 1353